It’s strange that the greatest tournament in the world would exclude some of the best players. And yet that’s exactly what happens in the World Cup. Americans (or anyway Americans who were paying attention) may have been mystified by the decision to leave American star Landon Donovan behind, but at least Donovan could have gone, had he been selected. For players like Petr Cech of the Czech Republic, Branislave Ivanovic of Serbia, Gareth Bale of Wales, and Vlad Chiriches of Romania–it’s not that they’re not good enough. It’s that their countries aren’t good enough. So while these players play at the highest level professionally (Real Madrid, Chelsea, etc.), they’re left to watch like the rest of us when the game’s grandest prize is up for grabs–and, salt in the wound, they get to watch players for some countries who are simply unfit to carry their boots. So is it really the greatest tournament in the world?
Perhaps the most extraordinarily talented absentee, Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, thinks not. “A World Cup without me is nothing to watch,” he says. Lots of people agree. His fellow Swedes in particular feel a bit like golf fans (and television networks) this summer waiting for Tiger Woods to come back. If the most compelling player isn’t out there, it’s not as great a test. But it’s long been the case that your birth country can be a problem in the hunt for world renown. Pele’s status as the game’s greatest player is cemented by his record in international play–including three World Cups titles. But he had the good fortune of playing alongside Carlos Alberto and some of the game’s other greats, Brazilians all. Ibrahimovic had no such luck in Sweden. Other great players in history have had the same problem. The late George Best of Northern Ireland was probably the most famous absentee. Called by Pele himself the “greatest footballer ever,” Best never got to play in the World Cup. Even without him, and without Ibrahimovic, it was still the best tournament in the world.
The goals of Ibrahimovic–what the World Cup won’t see.